Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fat Bike Ethics

When an activity based on self-reliance becomes popular, self-reliance is one of the first casualties. It happened with backpacking, cross-country skiing, winter hiking, mountain biking, kayaking...people are attracted by some element of the sizzle, but still expect someone else to cook and cut the meat. Where a few people would come in, seeking to learn the skills and master the craft, the masses come in looking to own the gear, get the tee shirt and project the image.

Fat biking is taking its turn in the spotlight now. It's still a narrow spot, but interest is on the rise. And the most frequently asked question is, "where can I go ride this thing?"

Operators of cross-country ski areas have to tell fat bike owners whether their machines are allowed on touring center trails. The bike advocates consider this a reasonable question. Some of them get a little snivelly when the answer is not an immediate and emphatic yes.

The fat bike of today started out a decade ago as an expedition bike. It was a go-anywhere machine for someone who might want to ride through the interior of Alaska, or across a desert, or some other place where a rugged machine with ample traction could make its methodical way from place to place. But, like so many other pieces of expedition and exploring equipment, the bikes proved fun or useful in less drastic situations. The subculture took hold.

Fat bikers: ski touring centers owe you nothing. Fat biking evolved in the wild, away from groomed skiing areas, and it flourished there for a decade before the public began to take notice. A fat bike was a tool for riding in venues that already existed, not a novel toy based on a mere idea, which then had to find a place in the real world. Fat biking venues already existed and continue to exist.

The wide tires may make little or no impression in some trail conditions, but in others they gouge up the trails so that re-grooming would be needed to make the trails usable again for the skiers for whom they were built. In some conditions, even normal skier use hacks things up pretty well. But tire tracks create a new pattern of disruption that can seriously impact trail conditions.

If a touring center allows limited fat bike use, someone has to patrol to make sure those limits are respected. Fat bike riders will need to pay fees sufficient to offset the expenses generated by their presence. But it doesn't end with the exchange of funds. The ski area has to patrol the trails, assess conditions and repair them as necessary, in addition to the normal maintenance and grooming schedule familiar from ski operations.

Many ski areas are making some effort to accommodate --or even attract -- fat bikers as another source of income. With natural snow becoming unreliable, cross-country areas have to figure out how to monetize what they've got, or put in costly snowmaking systems that still rely on sustained temperatures below freezing. So fat bikers look like a viable cash cow. But there's no escape from the logistical realities of trail maintenance when snow brings skiers and current fashion brings fat bikers at the same time.

In our area, uncommonly sustained low temperatures have brought deep powder this year. This is snow that does not pack readily to a firm surface for skate skiers, let alone solidify enough to allow fat bikes to pass without digging deep into the corduroy. It may not look like much damage to a non-skiing bike enthusiast, but it might as well be a ploughed field for someone rocketing along on skinny skis.

In other years, or even the later part of this one, conditions could change to favor the fat bikers. Whatever happens, those who take up the super wide tire need to remember that their machine started out as another way to travel freely, not another way to depend on the continuing efforts of trail groomers who work for someone else. Sure, the bikes require a somewhat compacted surface. Such a surface can occur naturally or artificially. But just because someone is creating such a surface doesn't mean they'd be tickled to have you on it. Nor are they a bunch of killjoy old fuds if they seem reluctant to fling wide the gates.

When winter collapses and takes the ski industry with it, within a decade or so, fatties can rule the Earth. Bide your time. Be kind and polite to the cross-country skiers as they enjoy their declining years.

1 comment:

Matt Boulanger said...

Interesting- our local place embraced mountain biking as an off-season activity 25 years ago and is doing the same with fatbikes. http://catamountoutdoorfamilycenter.com/activities/fat-bike/

It helps that their snow is very inconsistent these days and nordic traffic is way, way down. I'll have to ask about user conflict.

Local efforts have been much more about formalizing relationships with the snowmobile crowd to gain access to their trail network.